1970s, 3.5/4, Clint Eastwood, Review, Western

High Plains Drifter

#11 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

This is just really well-made exploitation, isn’t it? I’m not really complaining because Clint Eastwood, in his second outing as director, brings a professionalism and sense of class to both the directing and acting that the basic script doesn’t seem to deserve, taking a simple tale of revenge with a bare sense of character and spinning quite a yarn that pushes the feel of the film into a supernatural sense of unyielding and uncompromising justice. It ends up with precious little to say while never really giving time for any character to find any depth, all while most of the characters are all despicable, including the protagonist. I dig it.

It’s interesting that this could almost be seen as a sequel to High Noon if the early, Gary Cooper film had ended differently. If Cooper had died at the hands of the three men instead of prevailing, what would have happened to the conscience of the town? There’s not enough the same to do this literally, but it does feel like a spiritual sequel instead of a reaction like John Wayne and Howard Hawks did with Rio Bravo. Interestingly enough, it seems as though Wayne had the same reaction to High Plains Drifter as he did High Noon, admonishing Eastwood in response to a letter that his film didn’t reflect the reality of the Old West.

A Stranger (Eastwood) rides into frame through the heat waves of the desert and approaches the small, mining town of Lago. His presence is a disturbance as the people quietly watch this unknown person ride up into the saloon, get a drink, and go to the barber for a shave. Three toughs decide to make something of him, and the stranger shoots all three down before they even draw on him. He then goes and takes Callie (Mariana Hill), an opinionated young woman who chastises him on the streets, and rapes her in a barn in broad daylight. This Stranger…he…he is not a good person, and Eastwood, and the script by Ernest Tidyman, make no bones about it.

The problem for the town is that the three men had been hired in order to provide protection for them from Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and the two Carlin brothers (Dan Vadis and Anthony James) who murdered Lago’s marshal a year before in the streets by whipping him to death while everyone watched. The three men went to jail with promises of returning to exact vengeance because they were actually doing the bidding of the town’s power structure in getting rid of the marshal because he had discovered some major rights issues with the gold mine they were getting rich off of that would have shut it off to them. They were just doing the town’s bidding, and the town didn’t protect them. So, the town needs protection, and why not use this Stranger who is obviously so good with a gun?

The Stranger then degrades and debases the town of Lago in every way he can. When offered anything he wants, he gives away large portions of the general store’s goods, gives everyone in town drinks at the saloon, kicks everyone out of the hotel so he can have it by himself, and makes the little person Mordecai (Billy Curtis), a butt of jokes and little else in the town, both the mayor and the sheriff. He kicks the innkeeper Lewis Belding (Ted Hartley) out of his own house and beds Belding’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) while also parading around with Callie whom has decided that she’s okay with being on the inside of the man with all the power and things. I suppose a lot could be written about the contrast between Callie and Sarah, and the pretty much misogynist view of Callie herself, but it all just kind of folds into this exploitative feel of the whole affair. It’s not deep. It’s just about revenge.

And the revenge is just as much for the town as it is for Bridges and his two men. Giving basic firearm training to the men of the town, getting them to tear down a barn for large tables to place out in the middle of the street, and then painting the whole place red while relabeling the town’s sign to say “Hell” instead of “Lago”, the Stranger then disappears for the bulk of the finale while the three men come into town and wreck havoc, eventually beginning to burn it all down.

I love apocalyptic images, and the entire town of Lago burning in the middle of the night really applies. Earlier in the film, Eastwood uses some day for night photography in the middle of the desert to try and sell the nighttime, but not at this ending. It’s pitch black outside of the frame except the bright orange glow of the fire that’s just eating away at the town. The people of Lago, corrupt and complicit in the murder of Jim Duncan, their former marshal, can only meekly watch as Bridges tears through. Yes, I can see how Wayne would have his problems with this depiction of the men and women who built the West. Doesn’t really bother me, though, since the film is generally just kind of exploitation anyway. It’s not a serious look at how the West was built, but a pseudo-morality tale.

Now, reportedly the original script by Tidyman made it explicit that the Stranger was Duncan’s brother, but Eastwood removed it all in favor of this ethereal and imprecise telling of who the Stranger was. He could be Duncan’s brother. He could also be Duncan’s avenging spirit. He could also just be justice made flesh, a judgment on the sins of the town of Lago made manifest and sent in to do the work that must be done. Of the three potentials, I guess I prefer the final one, but it doesn’t really matter. The way Eastwood films (and uses the score by Dee Barton) the Stranger, in particular his entrance and exit, as well as the memories of the night of Duncan’s murder, give the whole thing this strange quality that pushes it in an interesting direction.

Is this good? It’s certainly very well made. There isn’t a bad performance in the whole thing. Eastwood carries the whole thing with his nearly silent performance while the supporting cast all react well to him. It’s certainly entertaining in its own twisted way, as well. The revenge is carried out by an unpleasant vessel, but the revenge itself ends up feeling justified. It looks great on that little town set built on the lake. It’s one of those movies I’ve known forever because it was one of my dad’s favorites and always in his VHS collection as well. I hadn’t seen it in probably 20 years, though, and seeing it as an adult now was eye opening at how thoroughly awful the Stranger is, and how conscious it seems to be. Justice is an ugly thing, sometimes, I guess.

Eastwood went from a small thriller to prove himself to the genre that he was most known for, and he kind of took the rug out from it like Sergio Leone liked to do. The lack of real narrative meat on the bones reminds me of Leone’s approach as well, while the filming still feels decidedly Don Siegel-ish. It’s entertaining and unpleasant all at once, and I kind of love it.

Rating: 3.5/4


7 thoughts on “High Plains Drifter”

  1. Honestly, I think this is one of the better Westerns Clint has been in. The ambiguity of his character, if he’s even a living man, really ads a layer here. The cinematography is much better, in my opinion, than Pale Rider, which this film is often compared to. I like it better than ‘Hang ’em High’, though the latter has a more traditional script.

    This plays out like a Western Horror story (ala ‘Grim Prairie Tales’, if you’ve ever seen that), a spooky tale about a spectre that returns for revenge on those who wronged him in life. One reason this plays more like a ghost story is the way none of the townsfolk recognize The Stranger. He’s no longer the Sheriff they once knew, he is…well…The Punisher. And instrument of Vengeance. He is Nemesis.

    What he is not, in my view, is Justice. No, this is a bloodier, more primal thing. An evil perhaps unleashed on evil or on those who were not firmly good.

    I really like it.


    1. Yeah, Justice may not be it. There’s no justice in the rape, for instance. Avenging spirit is probably best.

      The opaqueness around the Stranger is one of a few reasons I prefer this over Pale Rider. It’s not made explicit, and it allows for some interpretation in a film that doesn’t have much to interpret.

      Plus…those flames at night…Gotta love it.


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